Overview

The Worst Game in History

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“All right, all right, please be quiet.” Sakamochi clapped his hands together several times to get their attention. The clamor suddenly subsided. “Let me explain the situation. The reason why you’re all here today then...  is to kill each other.”

When the novel Battle Royale was published in Japan in 1999 it caused a furor. The author, Takami Koushun, created a world that was brutal and immediate. The stories of the Japanese middle school students of Class B, abducted to a remote island and compelled to kill each other until only one survives, is often compared to Lord of the Flies.

Battle Royale inspired a legion of young fans and caused some in the Japanese government to call for censorship. Takami, along with Manga artist Masayuki Taguchi serialized the novel into comics form in 2000. Shortly afterwards, the late Japanese film-making legend Fukusaku Kinji adapted the work into a wildly violent piece of cinema.

Widely popular in Japan, the Battle Royale film has taken on a cult status in the United States. Copies of the DVDs are highly sought after by fans and curious cinephiles. Perhaps, in the wake of the Columbine massacre, American film distributors were wary of a movie about a group of homicidal school children, as the film has never had a theatrical release outside of film festivals. Whatever the case, Battle Royale has gained a large American following made up of fans of the novel, Manga, and special edition discs.

Inevitably, some aspects of the work are lost in translation. Still, there must be something to these 42 stories of life and death that gives them meaning to their many fans. Is it merely excessive violence, or is there something deeper going on?

Novel

The novel, translated into English by Oniki Yuji, is the original source of the controversial tales. In its original medium it may compare to the works of Chuck Palahniuk, terse and blood curdling. All of the structures used in the Manga and films are introduced here. Student’s lives are ticked off chapter-by-chapter. All the key players are introduced and numbered for easy play-by-play.

Among the forty-two students six students stood out most. Nanahara Shuya (boys #15), the reluctant rocker and the injured Nakagawa Noriko (girls #15), are the center of the story. They’re joined by Kawada Shogo (boys #5), a mysterious character who knows more about the game than he should. On another part of the island Mimura Shinji (boys #19) makes his plans for revolt. Kiriyama Kazuo (boys #6) and Mitsouko Souma (girls #11) are the two most deadly students of Class B.

The novel also introduced the oppressor/teacher, Sakamochi Kinpatsu. Curiously, this character has different names in the Manga and in the film. This character serves as a foil for the students, introducing the BR Act, the authoritarian law calling for the reality-show-style killing spree. Once the basic rules are set, Sakamochi steps aside to let the stories unfold.

Manga

The Manga, notably written by the novel’s original author, takes the stories from the novel and expands upon them. The comics serve to exaggerate many of the novel’s most horrific aspects. The teacher, named Yonemi Kamon, is presented as a friendly, long-haired pervert. The gore is presented in gruesome detail. Bullet holes and other injuries gape open, exposing bone fragments, rolling eyeballs, and showers of blood.

The action in the Manga is also pushed to extremes. Fight scenes explode off the page. Characters who play the game seem to sweat profusely. Crazed at the prospect of being the final survivor, saliva splashes from their mouths as they inevitably attack in a bug-eyed frenzy.

Adapted for American audiences by Keith Giffen, it seems that the Manga is also the most expansive of the three tellings. Giffen, a fan of the Battle Royale film, seeks to make the language palatable to American audiences, while hopefully keeping to the spirit of the original.

Giffen made liberal changes to the work. In the adapted script, the deadly seductress Souma Mitsouko explains as she slices off another student’s head “Fashion tips, red’s not your color.” A more direct translation of Takami’s script would read “I had to kill you before you killed me.” Lost in the translation is Mitsuko’s basic fear, but the reading is still enjoyable.

Where the novel simply explains characters’ histories, the Manga revels in flashbacks. The source of Souma Mitsuko’s pain is shown, her body presented as a rag-doll. Nanahara Shuya plays the guitar, influenced by American rock ‘n’ roller Bruce Springsteen, in an obvious statement of rebellion. Even the minor characters’ back-stories are expanded.

Feature Film

Directed by the late master Fukusaku Kinji and scripted by his son Kenta, the Battle Royale film is a simplified version of what is told in the novel and Manga. Cast as the oppressor was Takeshi Kitano (also known as Beat Takeshi) as Class B’s previous teacher Kitano. Along with Takeshi, numerous young Japanese actors were cast. The lead role of Nanahara was played by Fujiwara Tatsuya, a Japanese TV star. Shuya Kuriyami Chiaki who played Chigusa Takako, would later achieve fame in Quentin Tarantino’s ultra violent Kill Bill volume one as Go-Go Yubari.

The film has a penchant for explosions of blood and flame. The Fukusakas, by necessity, amalgamate many of the characters. The film immediately sets apart the more dangerous of the boys, Kawada Shogo and Kiriyama Kazuo. Kiriyama, previously shown as the son of a Yakuza, and leader of the school’s toughest gang, is instead portrayed as a shockheaded transfer student intent on killing for thrills. The scheming Mimura character is largely lost in the film, as are all the less obvious friendships of the novel and the Manga.

The feature seems to answer to art-house cinema as much as the original stories. Black plates, like the dialogue in a silent movie, appear onscreen to highlight key phrases. Director Fukusaku described his film as a fable, and made many ironic choices. For one, Miyamura Yuko plays a character only present in the movie, the training film girl. Miyamura, in a voice that may be familiar to fans of undubbed Japanese Anime, lays out the rules of the game while at the same time, maintaining a cuteness that is almost lovable. Later, as the second day rises, as the first casualties are announced by loudspeaker, a Strauss waltz plays, obscuring the horror with which these murders may be viewed.

The Battle Royale feature elements that were not present in the previous incarnations. The oppressor Kitano is expanded upon, making him seem somewhat sympathetic. We see him before the students begin their field trip, attacked by one of his students. Perhaps Fukusaku Kenta wanted to explain some of the mysteries behind the BR act. The justification is never stated fully in the novel or Manga (well, the explanation is not presented in the translations, regardless) why the State chose the annual televised massacre of a middle school class. In the film it’s suggested that students have become so violent and out of control that all teens should be taught a lesson. This reasoning makes very little sense.

Whether or not parents have lost control of their children a question remains. What’s the point?

What’s the point of Battle Royale?

Forty-two school children are faced with imminent doom. What would make it worthwhile to observe gratuitous trauma and pointless bloodshed? Is there something going on behind the violence? An answer has never been stated outright.

Perhaps it could be this: It’s what we make of our last moments alive that define us, and each of us will treat it differently. Class B, like all people, have a limited time on Earth. It would do us all well to spend that time accordingly.

- Neil Figuracion

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